Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Experts Struggle to Protect Air Travel

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Aviation experts racking their brains could think of no sure-fire way to prevent suicide terror attacks that use aircraft to fly into buildings.

"There is no easy answer," said retired crash investigator Macarthur Job.

From time to time, people have proposed that cockpits be isolated from the rest of the aircraft by a bullet-proof bulkhead and door -- a concept sometimes called Fortress Cockpit.

Job said that idea could be taken further. "What about an armed guard on the flight deck?" he said. Israel's El Al already carries armed "sky marshals."

"It might be possible to incapacitate cockpit intruders with something like pepper spray," he added. "Even in the passenger cabin, hijackers could be overcome by the release of tear gas or something like it, with the crew monitoring the situation by video camera.

"The gas would also temporarily incapacitate at least some of the passengers, but clearly that would be the lesser of two evils."

But, as Job himself added, such measures only protect against the traditional aviation terror threat, the one in which the plane and its occupants are the targets.

Suicide attackers who want to use a plane as a weapon against some other target have other options than airliners full of passengers.

"They could go out and get some other aircraft," said Malcolm English, editor of the authoritative aviation monthly Air International.

It might be a hired business jet, or it might be a big, old airliner taken on lease. Even Boeing 747s, which weigh more than 300 tons and are at least twice as large as the planes that hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon, are available on lease.

Theoretically, governments could adopt a policy of shooting down aircraft that stray off course, especially if they approach sensitive places such as city centers.

"That is pretty drastic, because you can have honest aircraft straying off course, perhaps with control problems," said Job, a writer on aviation disasters since he retired as senior inspector of air safety in Australia.

There are other obvious problems. An air force could probably not react quickly enough to intercept a terrorist plane that took off from an airport near its target. Besides, one recent proposal for a new system of air traffic management envisages pilots taking whatever routes they like.

Another, even more improbable idea that sometimes gets a mention is a mechanism that permits ground controllers to override the crew of aircraft.

But no such system is in service or is even remotely contemplated by officials, even though it might also prevent less destructive instances of pilot suicide and save planes whose crew were incapacitated by accident.

"How would you make everyone conform to the requirement?" asked Job, noting the system would not work unless all of the world's aircraft were so equipped.

"The infrastructure to put that in place would be so elaborate and expensive that it would be totally impracticable."